Monday, May 23, 2011

Borders (EN)

I vividly remember the time when I needed a visa to travel to Western Europe. The endless queues at foreign consulates, the constant humiliation of being treated like a second class European, the arrogance and corruption of some consulate staff, were all powerful deterrents to anyone traveling for a legitimate purpose.
Once, as a student, I almost missed a scholarship for a summer university in Southern France, due to the impossibility to get an Italian transit visa in time. As I was traveling by train, the excruciating routine of seeking transit visas from all countries on the way, in reverse order from the destination, got stuck for good at the Italian consulate in Bucharest. Such was the chaos and total disregard for visa applicants that I spent one week at the consulate's gates with hundreds others from about 6am to afternoon every day, without even getting to submit an application (for a less than 24 hour transit visa) or to show to anyone at the consulate the letter that I had from the French embassy, requesting that my transit visas be expedited. In fact, I never got to see the building from the inside. At the last minute, I decided to change route and got instead transit visas from Austria and Germany, traveling about 1,000 kilometers more to my final destination.


A few years ago, I was flying from Vienna to Sarajevo for a regional conference. At that time there weren't many direct flight connections between the ex-Yugoslav countries, and to travel between neighboring countries the easiest way was often to take a transfer flight through Vienna. Thus, on the same flight there were quite a few people from other Western Balkan countries, some of whom I knew, going to the same conference. The late evening flight took off on time, but shortly thereafter the pilot noticed some technical problems and decided to return to Vienna rather than continue to Sarajevo. All passengers were disembarked and booked for an early morning flight next day; we also got vouchers for dinner and accommodation at the NH hotel at Vienna airport, literally across the street from the terminal. Everything went smoothly, but as I was checking in at the hotel, I noticed that my Western Balkan acquaintances were missing; and they did not show up by the end of the dinner when I went to sleep.
I eventually found out next morning that they had spent much of the night in the airport, not having an Austrian visa to get out of the terminal and cross the street to the airport hotel; eventually they were given a visa after a few hours, which left them just enough time to check in at the hotel, take a shower and return to the terminal for the morning flight.


Earlier this year, as I was flying from Vienna to Oslo on a snowy winter evening, a surprise was awaiting upon disembarkment at Oslo airport: a gentleman in uniform, standing at the gate (just standing there, not at the typical booth as there was none around) was checking travelers' passports or IDs.
To remind, both Austria and Norway are part of the border-free Schengen zone (though the latter is not an EU member); theoretically this means that there should be no control whatsoever at the border. But there it was.
To be fair, it went pretty fast, the uniformed man seemed to be doing a largely perfunctory check. Notwithstanding, my Romanian passport earned me some bonus conversation. Unlike the others, I was asked about the purpose and duration of my visit, and when I explained, it probably seemed somehow counter-intuitive to my interlocutor, so he asked me to show him some evidence, which I did. While doing this, all along in the back of my mind a nagging inner voice was telling me that I didn't have to answer those questions - as an EU national I was free to travel within the Schengen zone at will without having to provide any explanation. But I just answered them, because it seemed more expedient and I was not in the mood to look for trouble.
To give some minimum satisfaction to the nagging voice, and having already established rock-solid credentials for my less than 24-hour visit to Norway, I asked the uniformed man what was his purpose checking passports at a Schengen internal (non-)border. He seemed a little surprised by the question and told me that his was not a border control, just a police check. It just happened at the border by some coincidence.


Why am I telling these stories?
Well, because these personal stories (and I actually have many, many more) are illustrative of the history that we have been living in this region. The experience of traveling in Europe, as a Romanian, has changed a lot, mostly for the better, in the last 20 years - and this has coincided with historic progress in the country's European integration, culminating with accession to the EU in 2007 (perhaps more important for the common folks was the lifting of visa requirements back in 2002).
And this has pretty much been the trend as well for other Eastern European countries that gravitate towards the EU.

But this trend seems now to have stalled, or even gone into reverse gear.

When Romania and Bulgaria this spring were blocked from joining the Schengen agreement although they had fulfilled the formal criteria, not many people got worried. After all, everyone knows that these two countries are laggards in most matters, so what's wrong about assigning them some extra homework to pass the grade - right?

But this was just the tip of the iceberg, and it's not about Romania and Bulgaria.
It's about much more than that - the dismantling, in slow motion, of some of the fundamental assumptions of the European project. It's about the re-emergence of borders.

The atmosphere has been getting increasingly toxic around the Schengen agreement and the visa regimes for some time. Pressured by right wing populists who are making big gains on the political scene, many Western governments are pandering to increasing xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment among their constituencies and take the politically expedient option of reinforcing national borders.
This course, if unchecked, can lead to a downward spiral with catastrophic effects for European integration.

Under the current rules of the Schengen agreement, states can reinstate controls at internal borders only as an exceptional measure for a determined period in case of threat to public order. However, this option has been used extensively, for reasons ranging from international summits to official visits by heads of state to sport events (for instance, Austria re-introduced border controls during the 2008 European football championship that it hosted jointly with Switzerland). The champion of border controls within Schengen has been by far France (same source).

But lately the situation has become a lot more serious, threatening to unravel the key achievement of hassle-free travel within Europe.
It started with Italy granting travel documents to some 20,000 Tunisian refugees, enabling them to move freely within the Schengen area. The response by France was stunning: in an effort to block the Tunisians' access on its territory, it went to the extreme of practically closing its border with Italy - a clear infringement of the Schengen agreement that was extensively commented on blogs (example) but didn't get virtually any reports in mainstream media. Eventually Sarkozy and Berlusconi came together and asked for a revision of the Agreement to make it easier to introduce border controls when deemed necessary.
(In the case of France, it is quite ironical how much its eagerness to intervene militarily in support of Libyan freedom fighters contrasts with its petty concern not to allow any refugees from North Africa to set foot on its territory. Perhaps the only common denominator that explains these apparently contrasting attitudes are president Sarkozy's attempts to revive his re-election outlook. But in terms of xenophobic overreactions his government is a repeat offender.)

More recently, the pace of Schengen unravelling seems to accelerate.
Denmark announced its firm intention to reintroduce controls at its borders with Germany and Sweden. It does insist that the measure will be within the limits of the Schengen agreement, but not many are convinced.
Worrisome statements are also made by other countries, like Belgium.

And the latest rumors on the possible re-instatement of visa requirements for Serbia and Macedonia are rotten. A re-establishment of visa regimes would send a very disturbing signal to many in Western Balkans and beyond. A key assumption for the region, which has helped stabilize the situation after the post-Yugoslav wars, is the promise of EU membership at some point in the future.
It is understood that the EU accession process may take a long time, and that different countries may move at different speeds; but the process is largely understood as being irreversible, as long as the countries work peacefully to resolve their differences and comply with EU requirements. Reinstating visas for the few countries that had qualified in 2009 for visa-free traveling would question that assumption and would discredit the EU promise. It would also undermine pro-European governments and bolster nationalistic parties that resent the concessions already made in the name of EU accession.

The damage is not irreparable yet.
But the mood that seems to prevail lately among some of the Western governments does not bode well for the future.

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